Aimee Mullins, L’Oréal Talk Progress for Women in Innovation

If you ask Aimee Mullins how to drive innovation, she responds with an athlete’s point of view.

Exploring new ideas should be part of a routine, like training for a sport, not just done in a crisis, the athlete and model told me in an interview at L’Oréal USA’s NEXT Generation Awards in New York. “So much of our society is about focusing on one thing,” Mullins said. “Dabbling is how you develop that curiosity muscle.”

Mullins was the keynote speaker at least week’s event, which honored three women founders of startups picked as standouts. This is the third year for the Women in Digital program, which offers the chosen companies mentorship and a chance to test out their technology with L’Oréal’s brands.

The honorees this year were Cynthia Breazeal, founder of Jibo in Cambridge, MA; Victoria Eisner co-founder of Glamsquad in New York; and Tania Yuki, founder of Shareablee in New York.

The importance of women speaking up in innovation is exemplified by Mullins. Born without fibula bones, both of her lower legs were amputated below the knees when she was a year old. Mullins said she grew up learning to walk, run, and compete in sports on wooden prosthetic legs.

Over the years, her prosthetics were upgraded to newer materials, but she pushed for new designs and concepts. Nearly 20 years ago, in her quest to be “the fastest woman in the world with prosthetic legs,” she got in touch with an inventor to create something not yet tried. Rather than mimic human anatomy, the woven carbon-fiber legs that were developed for her were modeled after the hind legs of cheetahs.

Mullins continues to give her input in this field, including working with a team at MIT that is developing a more advanced bionic, prosthetic leg. “The team, which was predominately men, were not thinking in the checklist of what the ideal prosthetic leg can offer,” she said. “They were not thinking it should have a bendable foot-ankle so the user can wear a different heel height. That’s something I think about because I have to bring a suitcase full of different legs everywhere I go if I want options to wear different shoes.”

Tania Yuki, Victoria Eisner, Cynthia Breazeal, and Aimee Mullins at this year's awards.

Tania Yuki, Victoria Eisner, Cynthia Breazeal, and Aimee Mullins at this year’s awards.

Raising the voices of women in innovation continues to be a fight, though one Mullins and others believe is well worth the effort. “Right now, 7 percent of people who get venture capital funds are women,” she said. “It’s not because there’s not enough great ideas that women have.” Even if some of the extra hurdles women entrepreneurs must overcome are inadvertent, Mullins thinks the system is set up to be more difficult for them—but it doesn’t have to be that way. “I believe that men of my generation do not intend to keep their sisters, and their girlfriends, and their wives, and their moms at bay,” she said.

She believes the Women in Digital program helps drive some change by supporting startups founded by women—but there is still a long way to go. “Even when we honor the success of women who are making it, lots of our sisters aren’t, simply because the door isn’t as open as it is for our brothers,” Mullins said.

For Breazeal, the award from L’Oréal came just days after Jibo wrapped up a $2.3 million funding campaign on Indiegogo. Breazeal is on leave from the MIT Media Lab, where she heads up the personal robotics group. Jibo is a “social robot” that learns users’ preferences, can tell stories, take family photos, and be used to make video calls.

Breazeal said her interest in robots began as a kid watching R2-D2 in the “Star Wars” movies. She said Jibo, as a robot for the family, can be used to interact with content from beauty brands such as L’Oréal. “The time is finally right,” she said. “There is a lot that technology can still do to help busy families.”

Part of the idea for social robots, she said, is to combine someone the users trust with information technology. “When you think of a robot in that way, as opposed to a labor device that vacuums, now robots can do many things for you,” she said.

For example, a user might ask Jibo to take pictures, rather than having to set up a camera themselves. Breazeal said Jibo is a helper for the physical world, beyond what digital personal assistants such as Siri or Cortana offer from within … Next Page »

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